Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

The history of our Revolution,” John Adams once sniffed, “will be one contin­ued lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Frank­lin’s electrical rod smote the earth and out sprung General Washington, fully clothed and on his horse. Franklin then proceeded to electrify them with his rod and thence for­ward these three – Franklin, Washington and the horse­ – conducted all the policy, nego­tiations and war.”

Although Adams’ state­ment is more a reflection of his own insecurity, believing that his enormous contributions to the cause of American liberty were overshadowed by those of the great Pennsylvania statesman, it is doubtful that Franklin himself could have conjured a better image. John Adams, like so many of Frank­lin’s contemporaries, were awed by Philadelphia’s most popular citizen. Not only were they impressed by his civic and scientific contributions, but they also fell victim to the many images Franklin pro­moted of himself: “Ideal Citi­zen,” “Scholar,” “World­-renown Scientist” and the prototypical “American.”

Benjamin Franklin was so effective in propagandizing his reputation that two hundred years after his death in 1790, Americans still are confused about the true identity of the founding father. Franklin was first and foremost a common man. He was the son of a modest New England family; apprenticed as a boy, he ran away from home, educated himself and went into business for himself. His skills – ­printing, writing, inventing and seeking knowledge – were all fundamental to the colonial period in which he lived. This common man succeeded through his hard work and self-education. There were other Benjamin Franklins, though – the “Doctor Frank­lin” of European intellectual circles; the virtuous citizen who founded schools, fire companies and libraries; the respected statesman who helped inspire the American Revolution; and the world famous scientist who tamed lightning. Franklin clearly chose to enhance these facets of his life, acting as his own image maker.

Benjamin Franklin con­sciously manipulated his writ­ings, dress, speech and personal idiosyncrasies in order to further his special interests in domestic, as well as foreign, affairs. While this image-making tendency was inspired by his vanity, Franklin chose to view it as beneficial to the particular needs of his countrymen. He admitted that vanity, although criticized by others, was “often productive of good to the possessor and to others who are within the sphere of action.” Rather than deny his vanity, Franklin “thanked God for it among all the other comforts of life.”

Franklin’s vanity and the personal image-making in­spired by it helped to build a model of civic virtue for eight­eenth century Pennsylvanians, enabling the Commonwealth to develop from a small, pro­vincial English colony to the capital state of an independent country. In foreign affairs, Franklin’s propaganda allowed him to secure the respect of powerful European nations necessary for the survival of the fledgling United States. Benjamin Franklin possessed a tremendous awareness of his historical role and used the various images he cultivated to further that role for the greater benefit of his country.

Domestically, Franklin cultivated two prominent images, “Ideal Citizen” and “Scholar.” His desire to propagate these images was shaped by his experience in colonial Pennsylvania and, in particular, by the rise of a new middle class of tradesmen and farmers. Economically, this ambitious middle class was successful, despite the mercantilist restrictions of Great Britain. The opening of fertile land in western Pennsylvania encouraged increased speculation and settlement. Motivated by Protestant work ethic, Pennsylvanians capitalized on these opportunities and, in the process, discovered a means of financial success and social mobility.

The colony’s political climate was also conditioned by the needs of this emerging middle class. Continuing land settlement in the western territories, once inhabited by the Delaware Indian tribes, resulted in repeated requests for protection by the Scotch-Irish and German immigrants who relocated in those areas. The request produced serious conflict within the colonial assembly between the pacifist Quakers and their pro-militia opponents from the west. By 1756, this issue proved to be so divisive that the Quaker assemblymen, believing that they could not remain loyal to their pacifist convictions and fulfill their public responsibilities as representative officials, resigned en masse from the legislature. Their retreat was the culmination of a gradual decline in Quaker influence on the Commonwealth. By the 1770s, Pennsylvania’s founding fathers, the Religious Society of Friends, had become the minority in a heterogeneous society of varied ethnic and religious groups.

Social institutions, much like education, were unstable in colonial Pennsylvania. Schooling was accomplished through parental initiative and informal local control of institutions. Colonial government had very little influence over education in the Commonwealth; rather, local communities established subscription schools, or church groups provided a religiously guarded education for their youth. For the wealthy, the rudimentary learning of childhood was followed by a classical education abroad. However, for most adolescents an apprenticeship in a particular trade became an essential step in the educational process. Any further education for these youth came through self-instruction.

Essentially, Franklin’s Pennsylvania was characterized by change and instability in its economic and political institutions and by the social displacement of a Quaker elite by an increasingly ambitious, non-Quaker middle class. Under these circumstances, the New England-born Franklin sought to secularize the Puritan values of hard work, frugality, civic duty and scholarship, and to encourage this emerging middle class to pursue its material interests for the benefit of the colony. He realized, however, that members of the middle class needed a model by which they could pattern themselves. Franklin, through his cultivation of two images – “Ideal Citizen” and “Scholar” – attempted to provide that model.

The founding father’s urban outlook and the many activities in which he involved himself helped to cultivate the image of an “Ideal Citizen.” As a member of a rapidly growing urban community, Franklin recognized the need for civic improvements. He contributed to the process of urbanization by initiating projects such as street-paving, fire-protection, lighting and education. These activities – and Franklin’s promotion of them – illustrated the necessity of the individual to contribute to society, thus inspiring the “Ideal Citizen” image. However, Franklin’s writings were more significant in transmitting the model of “Ideal Citizen,” further defining that image for his middle-class readership.

Poor Richard’s Almanack, which Franklin began publishing in 1732, would appear for nearly a quarter of a century in homes across the nation. The Almanack would spread the gospel of industry, frugality and civic virtue with quaint sayings such as: “Thou hadst better eat salt with the philosophers of Greece than sugar with the courtiers of Italy”; “The cat in gloves catches no mice”; “If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” Franklin’s Autobiography was, however, his most effective means of spreading the “Ideal Citizen” image.

Franklin hoped that an account of his life to the year 1758 would provide readers with an example of “prudent conduct in the commencement of a useful life. “Franklin’s narrative portrayed the growth and ambitions of the middle- class tradesman. His rise from “poverty and obscurity” to a “state of affluence and some degree of reputation in the world” was recorded to inspire the members of the colonial middle class as they sought the same upward mobility for themselves. Franklin was careful to emphasize the need for virtuous living in order to climb the social ladder, too. He credited his own success to his “Plan for Moral Self-Improvement,” a “bold arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” This program consisted of thirteen virtues which Franklin intended to practice in his life, and he kept a daily record of his progress on each one. He disclosed his plan and its virtues in his Autobiography.

By encouraging his middle class readers to follow these virtues, Franklin, as the “Ideal Citizen,” sought to nurture in them a “steady and uniform rectitude of conduct” in the hope that they, like he, would arrive at a “state of moral perfection. ” Between 1790 and 1828, twenty-two editions of the Autobiography were published in the United States alone. If nothing else, the continuous publication of the account after Franklin’s death in 1790 ensured that the founding father would continue to exercise some influence over his image for future generations. The “Ideal Citizen” image, though, was not the only one that Franklin promoted among his fellow Pennsylvanians.

Although his formal education consisted of only two years (and these were completed by the age of ten), Franklin sought to emphasize the importance of education for his countrymen and, by doing so, carefully cultivated the image of a “Scholar.” He compiled a collection of books that was reputed to be the largest private library in America and often permitted his Philadelphia neighbors to borrow books, stressing the importance of self-instruction. He made a conscious effort to mingle with the “virtuosi of various kingdoms and nations” whenever he traveled abroad, thus securing for himself membership in the scholarly Royal Society of London and, later, an honorary degree from St. Andrews University in Scotland. Because of these accolades, the one-time Philadelphia printer became popularly known as “Doctor Franklin.” These achievements were not without substance.

Franklin’s “Scholar” image was reinforced by the host of educational institutions he founded. His establishment of the Philadelphia Academy in 1749 provided youth between the ages of eight and sixteen with a curriculum of classical and practical knowledge. This secondary education would stress not only English grammar, history, rhetoric and logic, but also drawing, arithmetic and geography, so that students “could be fitted for any trade or profession” upon graduation. More impor­tantly, the Academy aimed to provide a “Seminary for learn­ing” that would refine the basic skills of a primary educa­tion and “lay the foundation for posterity in [the] infant country.” The Philadelphia Academy later became the University of Pennsylvania.

Adult education would be conducted through a host of mutual improvement societies founded by Franklin, includ­ing the Junta, a philosophical discussion group; the Society for Political Enquiries, devoted to the study of the “arduous and complicated science of government”; and, most im­portantly, the American Philo­sophical Society. The discussions of the American Philosophical Society were based on practical knowledge and involved subjects as “all new discovered plants, herbs, trees, roots and their uses and methods of propagating them; new and useful improvements in any branch of mathematics; new methods of caring or preventing diseases; new improvements in planting, gardening and clearing the land; new mechanist inven­tions for saving labor; and all philosophical experiments that let light into the nature of things, tend to increase the power of man over matter and multiply the conveniences or pleasures of life.”

The impressive list suggests that the membership of the Society was inclusive – and it was. The Society was open to “ingenious men of all trades and professions residing in the several colonies.” Although the institution was headquar­tered in Philadelphia, where a core of seven members – a physician, a botanist, a mathe­matician, a chemist, a mecha­nician, a geographer and a general philosopher – regularly met, the larger membership communicated their ideas through “a constant corre­spondence.” The three societies, together with the establishment of a subscription library, encouraged members of Pennsylvania’s middle class to continue their education through self-instruction.

Not only did this host of educational institutions serve to fill a void in the educational arrangements of colonial Penn­sylvania, but it represented the secularization of education itself. No longer would educa­tion be the exclusive realm of the clergy or the affluent members of society, but it became directed to the advancement of the ordinary person and pro­vided useful knowledge for the daily business of life. More importantly, these institutions provided a loose network for a system of education that began in childhood and continued through adulthood. Aimed at nurturing civic virtue among middle-class Pennsylvanians, Franklin’s system had done more than reinforce the “Scholar” image he so greatly cherished; it laid the founda­tions for the universal system of education the Commonwealth would establish in the nineteenth century.

Franklin was also adept at image-making in his approach to foreign policy. He viewed the self-promotion of two images – “World-renown Scientist” and the proto­typical “American” – as nec­essary for protecting the interests of the nation he rep­resented by 1776. After separation from Great Britain, the United States was pitifully weak and vulnerable to the interests of international poli­tics. Americans needed to form an association with an­other great nation in order to replace the cultural and psy­chological ties they once had with England. This connection was necessary if Americans were to remain in the mainstream of western civilization. More importantly, in 1776 Americans needed the military and financial aid of another powerful nation in the war against their former sovereign, King George III. Franklin realized that neither of these goals could be achieved with out the help of France. To secure such a Franco­-American alliance would not be an easy task for the great Pennsylvanian either.

Acting as an emissary of an independent United States, Franklin would have to aban­don the aspirations he once held for a grand British em­pire, one that would have included the North American colonies. He would have to devise a new plan that would work to benefit an autono­mous nation, and yet one that would be consistent with the realities of international power politics. Franklin would have to exploit the traditional ani­mosity France held for Great Britain, one that had clashed over control of the one-time American colonies during the French-Indian war. Such an objective was surrounded by suspicion. After all, Franklin was representing a fledgling republic which had recently overthrown its king and one that had, by its association with Great Britain, bred a long hatred for France. And now he would be attempting to bring the republic into an alliance with French monarch Louis XVI, who despised republican­ism. Personal diplomacy would be essential to Frank­lin’s success, as the interna­tional prestige he commanded went unmatched by any American. To a large degree, his success would rest with the images he cultivated for him­self among the French people.

Franklin’s reputation as a scientist was well known to the French. In addition to inventing useful everyday items, including bifocals and the Franklin stove, the Ameri­can statesman had also charted the Gulf Stream in order to provide for a more rapid pas­sage of mail between America and Europe. But, Franklin’s greatest contributions to sci­ence came through his experi­ments with – and theory of – electricity. Franklin’s the­ory of electricity explained basic postulates about nature and the composition of matter that had only been suggested by the experiments of Euro­pean scientists. He proposed an entirely new dimension for matter, assuming that all mat­ter had a certain electrical property and could be mea­sured. Moreover, Franklin proved that lightning was a discharge of static electricity produced by the natural move­ments of air and not an awe­some manifestation of God’s arbitrary powers, popularly believed at the time. By doing so, the Philadelphia scientist had fixed electricity as one of the greatest cosmic forces of the universe, along with heat, light and gravity. His subse­quent invention of the light­ning rod allowed him to harness a powerful force, preventing extensive damage to some of the highest build­ings in Philadelphia.

Because of his experimenta­tion with lightning, Franklin was considered to be “god­like” by the French, since they held superstitions about light­ning’s dramatic effects. He realized this, too, and never failed to capitalize on the op­portunity to advance Ameri­can interests through his image of “World-renown Sci­entist.” Franklin introduced the lightning rod to Paris and made it a point to share his theories and experiments on electricity with several French scientists. He even went so far as to suggest that he might help the French in a “mutually advantageous enterprise” involving experimentation with electricity. Within months of his arrival in France, Frank­lin, the American diplomat in Paris, was being placed on the same pedestal with Isaac Newton, who was considered to have been the world’s great­est scientist.

Benjamin Franklin’s scien­tific genius was all the more intriguing to the French be­cause he was an American. He came from a country which was considered by most Frenchmen to be the home of only backwoodsmen and not scholars. The prototype of an American was, for the French, the frontiersman who was uncorrupted by the Old World civilization. Indeed, the French were charmed by the rusticity and innocence of this image. Franklin realized this and exploited the “American” image for his own diplomatic interests in securing a Franco­American alliance.

Whenever he mingled with the French aristocracy, Frank­lin wore a coonskin cap and made sure to speak the French language in a lively, ungram­matical tone. Although the cap served a practical purpose by concealing his eczema of the scalp, Franklin also wore it for its propaganda value. Together with his plain, fur-collared coat, Franklin gave the appearance of simple rusticity that characterized the American frontiersman the French imag­ined. They were simply charmed by him. Franklin was rather amused by this obses­sion, as he later recalled that he cut a “distinctive appear­ance among all the powdered heads of Paris.”

The French became so infat­uated with Franklin and the rare mixture of scholar and frontiersman he represented that they painted several por­traits of him, sculpted even more busts, and made rings, bracelets and snuff boxes all emblazoned with his likeness. Canes similar to the one Franklin used were popular items among the gentlemen of Paris, while in the city of Nantes, women began to wear wigs in the shape of Franklin’s coonskin cap – a fashion known as doing one’s hair a la Franklin. This obsession with the “American” image as cast by Franklin greatly amused him. “These medallions, pic­tures, busts, and prints,” he wrote to his daughter Sally in June 1779, “have made your father’s face as well known as that of the moon so that he durst not do anything that would oblige him to run away as he would be discovered wherever he should venture in France to show it.”

While he might have found this infatuation amusing, Franklin manipulated it to his own advantage. He never attempted to discourage the commercialization of his “American” image, but rather promoted it by sending busts and portraits of himself to French officials as a means of entre into the highest diplo­matic circles in the country. Even after the alliance had been secured, Franklin contin­ued to evoke the “American” image of backwoodsman in his addresses to the French. After signing the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the Ameri­can Revolution, Franklin re­joiced to his French counterparts. “Americans are now free to pursue their inter­ests peaceably. They are culti­vators of Land and have delighted only in their peace­able occupation, which must, considering the extent of their uncultivated territory, find them employment still for ages.”

Today, many Americans would be inclined to agree with Carl Van Doren, biogra­pher of Benjamin Franklin, who characterized the found­ing father as “a harmonious human multitude.” Two hun­dred years after his death, Americans remain awed by Franklin for the wide diversity of his abilities. However, most fail to acknowledge the one quality that enabled him to surpass the other founding fathers in the hearts of the American people: Franklin’s talent for marketing his own image.

The American penchant for deifying the founding fathers has blurred the reality of Ben­jamin Franklin, the common man. There is something al­most sacrilegious in suggest­ing that he acted in his own self-interest, even when Frank­lin himself would admit to it in his Autobiography. And to be sure, Franklin’s personal pros­perity was closely tied to that of the fledgling United States. If Benjamin Franklin seems so human, so similar to contem­porary politicians, it is because he really was. And yet, it was his ability to make his propa­ganda work so effectively for the benefit of the nation that he is celebrated as an “Ideal Citizen,” a “Scholar, ” a “World-renown Scientist” and the prototype of a heroic “American.”


For Further Reading

Aldridge, Alfred Owen. Ben­jamin Franklin, Philosopher and Man. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1965.

Best, John H., ed. Benjamin Franklin on Education. New York: Columbia University Press, 1962.

Block, Seymour Stanton. Ben­jamin Franklin: His Wit, Wis­dom and Women. New York: Hastings House, 1975.

Buxbaum, Melvin H. Benjamin Franklin and the Zealous Pres­byterians. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Carr, William G. The Oldest Delegate: Franklin in the Con­stitutional Convention. New­ark: University of Delaware Press, 1990.

Clark, Ronald W. Benjamin Franklin: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1983.

Kashatus, III, William C. “Hero and Hypocrite: The American Images of Benjamin Franklin, 1785-1828.” The Valley Forge Journal (June 1990).

Ketchum, Ralph. Benjamin Franklin. New York: Washington Square Press, 1965.

Labarec, Leonard W. and Whit­field J. Bell, Jr., eds. Mr. Frank­lin: A Selection from His Personal Letters. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.

Lopez, Claude-Anne and Eugenia W. Herbert. The Private Frank­lin, The Man and His Family. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975.

Sayre, Robert. The Examined Self: Benjamin Franklin, Henry Adams, Henry James. Prince­ton: Princeton University Press, 1964.

Sellers, Charles Coleman. Ben­jamin Franklin in Portraiture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962.

Stephens, Brad. The Pictorial Life of Benjamin Franklin. Philadelphia: Dill and Collins Company, 1923.

Stourzh, Gerald. Benjamin Franklin and American Foreign Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954.

Van Doren, Carl. Benjamin Franklin. New York: The Viking Press, 1938.

Wright, Esmond. Franklin of Philadelphia. Cambridge: Har­vard University Press, 1986.


William C. Kashatus III of Phila­delphia is a regular contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage. His most recent article, “Philadel­phia’s Mr. Baseball and His Amazing Athletics,” appeared in the summer 1990 edition.